China’s Cold Shoulder to U.S. Defense Secretary: Is Conflict on the Horizon?

China Denies Request for In-Person Meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary

China has snubbed the United States by refusing the U.S. Department of Defense’s request for an in-person meeting with the two countries’ defense ministers. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin planned to speak with his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, in Singapore from May 31 to June 4, but Beijing rejected the proposal, citing deteriorating relations.

The decision follows the U.S. decision to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon that flew over the continental U.S. while collecting data on sensitive military sites in what officials believe was an act of espionage. Since then, U.S. defense officials have struggled to communicate with their Chinese counterparts, with several proposed phone calls, dialogues, and meetings falling through.

Although Beijing has announced that Shangfu plans to attend the upcoming Shangri-La Security Dialogue and meet with the heads of delegations of relevant countries, the rejection of Austin’s meeting request raises concerns of a veering competition into an all-out conflict. Lack of formal dialogue between such significant Pacific competitors as China and the United States is bound to cause alarm among South Asian countries who feel caught in the middle.

The Biden administration staunchly refuses to lift sanctions against Shangfu, leading to additional tension between the two countries. While high-level defense talks seem unlikely, Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security, expressed the Department’s desire to keep up open lines of military-to-military communication between the two countries.

China’s outright rejection of the in-person meeting does nothing to ease the tensions brewing between the two countries. The Department believes strongly in the importance of maintaining open communication to ensure that competition does not result in conflict. However, unless China is willing to play ball, communication remains strained.

Written by Staff Reports

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